Survey on social status and societal structures in the novels "Jane Eyre" and "Emma"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



I. Introduction

II. How does social status influence the progress of the novel´s heroines?

III. Prominent features of social class covering both novels
III.1. Which parts of society are Austen and Brontë actually dealing with?
III.2. Marriage as an indicator of social mores and an affirmation of class society
III.3. The role and social rank of governesses in class society

IV. Nineteenth – century reception in the background of class-society

V. Conclusions

VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

In this term paper I am going to examine and compare how societal structures and social status are depicted in the fictional autobiography Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and the social satire Emma by Jane Austen.

The decision for this topic and why I limited the survey to these two novels is based on several reasons. Concerning the topic I was influenced by my first reading impressions in which I was astonished at the depicted variety and importance of societal structure which thus simply inspired me to learn more about it. In respect to the selected novels my choice was more differentiated. When I started working on this paper I wanted to include Dickens´ ”Great Expectations” but soon I decided that this might lead – due to the limited length of 20 pages – to a quite superficial examination of the topic. Moreover, excluding Dickens appeared rational to me due to the fact that the novels by Austen and Brontë seemed to provide, with their similar themes and their female protagonists, a greater basis for comparison. Knowing that the Brontës did not like what and how Jane Austen wrote confirmed my speculations in regard of these novels providing an interesting basis for comparison. Furthermore, the thirty years which lay in between the publications of Emma (1816) and Jane Eyre (1847) make it possible to examine in how far society had changed in the meantime.

Starting off with a comparative structural analysis of the novels in the backdrop of the question how social status influences the heroine´s progresses, I want to show how much social status mattered and which consequences were connected to it. In the following sections, Emma and Jane Eyre shall be examined and compared with regard to the parts of society that play a role in them, concerning the restrictions and social mores connected with their marriage plots and in respect of the special rank governesses seem to have occupied in it. This shall be done to get an impression of the distinctions that characterised the different groups in nineteenth-century class society as well as to get an insight into the social mores that laid the foundations for it and finally to explain and understand the socially ambiguous rank of governesses. In the last section I am going to prove with the help of nineteenth-century reviews if the way and the conditions which were taken into consideration in the previous sections corresponded to or contradicted the ideas of class society of Brontë´s and Austen´s contemporaries.

II. How does social status influence the progress of the novel´s heroines?

Despite the fact that both novels belong to the literary genre of the Bildungsroman and therefore depict the moral and psychological development of its heroines the contrast between their progresses concerning the ubiquitous influence of social status could not be more striking.

The opening passage of Emma gives the impression that its heroine Emma Woodhouse is pampered by life

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with little to distress or vex her. (Vol.1, Chapter 1, p.5)

It is significant that she is almost 21 years old since 21 was the legal age in the 19th century. At the same time it was generally expected that one had reached maturity at this point of life. Austen starts off at this point of Emma´s life to describe her development to adult consciousness and maturity which she has not yet reached. Being in a certain sense not only independent due to her father´s wealth but also because of the fact that he does not at all make use of his parental authority towards her, Emma can act as she pleases. Furthermore her independence is enhanced because of her social status in the society of Highbury in which she lives. She and her father are highly respected and “first in consequence there” (Vol.1,Chapter 1, p.7) and “She had many acquaintance in the place,”(ibid.). Within this acquaintance which is called “the microcosm”[1] of Highbury, Emma tries out the limits of societal structure by intervening in the lives of others. On the one hand she does this in her role as a match-maker and on the other hand by insulting and hurting her inferiors. This becomes especially evident in her behaviour towards Harriet Smith. Ignoring the social mores of status restrictions in marriage, Emma conscious- and unconsciously talks Harriet into figments of imagination about marriages with men who are in rank much above everything than she can actually expect (Vol.1, Chapter 6; Vol.3, Chapter 4). In addition, Emma even convinces her friend of refusing a marriage proposal of the candidate Robert Martin who, as far as his status is regarded, is completely suitable for her (Vol. 1,Chapter 7). Her slips do not only include errors in match-making but also some in the field of manner and behaviour. A good example illustrating this is her arrogant and insulting behaviour towards Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic party (Vol. 3, Chapter 7). It is her brother-in-law George Knightley who immediately criticises her for her wrong behaviour. Throughout the whole novel he is the one who points faux pas out to Emma (Vol.1,Chapters 1,5,8). But it is not only that Emma finally acknowledges Mr. Knightley´s correct criticism but also that she soon realises her faults herself which shows that she has learned from them and has grown. She visits Miss Bates to apologise (Vol.1,Chapter 8) and finally acknowledges that she has been forcing Harriet into vanity and pride and that she has encouraged her to think of herself as a better person than she actually is (Vol.3, Chapter 11).

In the end she seems to have learned her lesson and she evokes the impression of being mature.

With these remarks I want to drive at the fact that Emma´s immature and ignorant behaviour within Highbury society does not lead to any harsh consequences for her since she is superior and her social status seems to allow her to make these mistakes within her progress towards adulthood. All in all, this seems to contrast a lot with the progress of the heroine in Jane Eyre who is socially dependant and inferior and is unwillingly confronted with the structures of society. The influence of social status on her progress towards maturity shall be depicted in the following.

The heroine of the fictional autobiography Jane Eyre is a ten year old orphan which is in addition economically powerless because her parents have not left her any money. This inferior position on the social ladder leads to the fact that Jane is on the one hand fed, clothed and housed by her rich aunt Mrs Reeds with whom she lives but on the other hand she is also resented and treated cruelly. Being furthermore oppressed even by her cousins whom she fights back, Jane is finally completely excluded from family life at Gateshead. When she defends herself against her aunt and cousins, Jane seems to be aware of the severe consequences this might have since she says: “No; I should not like to belong to the poor people, […] I was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste” (Vol. 1, Chapter 3, p.36). The suggestion of the apothecary Mr. Lloyd to send her to school seems to be a good alternative for her compared to a life in poverty (Vol. 1, Chapter 3). Her time at Lowood charity school represents a very hard time for her, including bad and little food, insufficient heating and very harsh treatment though she soon makes friends with Helen Burns and gets attention from the superintendent Miss Temple (Vol. 1, Chapters 5-9). When typhus breaks out at Lowood causing a lot of deaths among the pupils including Jane´s friend Helen the fact that she is spared seems solely to be put down to fate. Due to her own efforts, Jane even becomes a teacher at Lowood and aged eighteen she secures a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall. There she teaches Adéle who is the ward of Mr. Rochester, master of Thornfield. Rochester and Jane fall in love with each other and want to get married despite the difference in their social rank and age. Just at the point when Jane´s perfect bliss seems to be fulfilled and she and Rochester are standing at the altar, their marriage is halted by the announcement that Rochester already has a wife. Due to the discovery of Bertha Mason -“the madwoman in the attic”[2] - Jane decides not to become Rochester´s mistress. She flees from Thornfield penniless and knowing no one to give her shelter, she wanders through the countryside for three days in search for food and work. Driven by her fortune, she finds shelter with St. John, Diana and Mary Rivers at Moor House. Despite the fact that they all feel a strong affection for Jane right from the beginning of their encounter on St. John discovers through pure coincidence that they are cousins and that Jane has inherited £20,000 from her uncle in Madeira. Jane shares the money with St. John and his sisters since she is very happy now to have a family and she does not want Diana and Mary to work as governesses again. She refuses a marriage proposal by St. John, knowing that he only wants to make her a missionarie´s wife and that he does not really love her. Hearing Rochester´s voice calling for her, she decides to ascertain what has happened to him in the meantime and she returns to Thornfield which she finds in ruins. After hearing from the inn owner that Rochester, following a fire, is blind and crippled and that Mrs. Rochester died in the fire, Jane immediately starts off to visit him at his new residence at Ferndean Manor. Jane accepts Rochester´s third proposal of marriage aware of the fact that they are on equal status now.

In my opinion retelling Jane´s tale is important since it demonstrates the ups and downs she has to undergo to finally reach maturity as well as equality with the man she loves. In contrast Emma Woodhouse who

differs from all previous Austen heroines in having no sense of insecurity, social or otherwise. At the centre of a world apparently unendangered by any possibility of discontinuity, Emma´s boundaries are where she wishes to place them.[3]

In her self-improving development Jane Eyre is a

´pre-social´ atom: free to be injured and exploited, but also free to progress, move through the class-structure, choose and forge relationships, strenuously utilise its talents in scorn of autocracy and paternalism.[4]

In my view these quotations in exemplify very well what I want to head at by comparing the influence of social status on the heroines progresses. Additionally, I hold the opinion that also the different settings of the novels reflect the security of Emma and the insecurity of Jane. Emma permanently stays at Hartfield, at least during the one year of her life which is described, while Jane is partly willingly and partly unwillingly moving a lot. Namely from Gateshead to Lowood school, from there to Thornfield, then to Moor House and finally to Ferndean Manor to find a permanent residence. As can be seen in the above summary, it takes Jane quite some efforts and struggles to settle down in a secure home whereas Emma has stayed and it is likely that she will forever stay at her hometown Highbury.


[1] Juliet McMaster: “Class”, in: Edward Copeland/ Juliet McMaster (eds.), The Cambridge Companion To Jane Austen, Cambridge 1997, p.118.

[2] Cf.: Sandra M. Gilbert/ Susan Gubar: The Madwoman in the Attic – The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination, New Haven/London 1979.

[3] Alistair Duckworth: The Improvement Of The Estate- A Study of Jane Austen´s Novels, Baltimore/London 1971, p.148.

[4] Terry Eagleton: Myths of Power- A Marxist Study of the Brontës, London/Basingstoke 1975, p.26.


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ISBN (Book)
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University of Göttingen – Seminar für Englische Philologie
The Victorian Novel Class Jane Austen Charlotte Bronte



Title: Survey on social status and societal structures in the novels "Jane Eyre" and "Emma"